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Illegal units

How to know if you live in an illegal unit

One or more of the following conditions may exist if you live in an illegal unit:

  • You live in the garage, the basement, the attic, a warehouse or other commercial space, or an in-law apartment behind a house
  • Your address includes an “A”, “B”, or “1/2” or your mail is delivered to someone else’s unit (you don’t have a mailbox of your own)
  • You must walk through the garage to get to your unit
  • The ceiling is less than 7 feet high
  • The piping and ducting is visible along the ceiling

Department of Building Inspection

If one or more of the above conditions exist, you don’t want to call the Department of Building Inspection. If your landlord is not doing repairs, you should try another way of pressuring them to do them, such as filing a decrease in services petition at the Rent Board or enrolling in our CEOP program by contacting our counseling team.

If an inspector from the Department of Building Inspections enters an illegal unit, they are required to issue a notice of violation. If an inspector comes to your home while you are there, you can refuse to allow them to enter if you fear that you live in an illegal unit.

Under the in-law and illegal space legislation passed in 2016, the landlord, when cited by DBI, receives the option to legalize it, if the place is able to be legalized. That means the zoning in the area allows for residential use, and the place doesn’t have any structural problems preventing legalization. The landlord can work with DBI to bring it up to code, or they can file for a permit to demolish the unit, and have to go to a Planning Commission hearing for a change in use.

Planning Commission

The Commission meets every Thursday in room 400 of City Hall. If the Commission approves the permit, then the landlord can do an eviction for demolition of an illegal unit.

It’s possible that the Planning Commission will not approve a change in use. Certainly, the tenants in the unit should attend the hearing before the Commission and explain that they live there and will have a difficult time finding a place they can afford.

If the landlord receives their permits and you do get evicted for a demolition of an illegal unit, you are entitled to a 60-day written notice (a verbal notice is NEVER legal) and relocation money. In 2022, it’s $7,721 per adult with a ceiling of $22,262 per household. Households with a senior or children receive an additional $4,948. The amount increases every year.

You have a right to live in safe and decent housing

Even if you live in an illegal unit, under California Civil Code Section 1941.1, landlords must provide the same standard of habitability as with any other apartment, including:

  • Waterproofing and weather protection of the roof and outside walls
  • Unbroken doors and windows
  • Plumbing, electricity and gas facilities in good working order
  • A reasonable amount of hot and cold running water
  • A sewage disposal system
  • Adequate and safe permanent heating facilities
  • Electrical lighting, with wiring and electrical equipment which conforms with the applicable law at the time of installation, and maintained in good working order
  • Floors, stairways and railings maintained in good repair
  • An adequate number of containers for garbage and rubbish
  • Buildings and grounds which are free of rubbish, garbage, rodents, and other pests

Remember: There are thousands of illegal units in SF. You still have all the same rights as any other tenant if you live in an illegal unit that is in a rent-controlled building (a building with more than one unit that was built before 1979). If you live in an in-law unit attached to a single-family home, the in-law unit (even if it’s illegal) counts as a second unit.


The situation is more complicated if you live in a warehouse or basement or other site not zoned for residential use. A warehouse could be in an area zoned for commercial use only. A basement could be in a condition that makes it incapable of being legalized.

If you live in one of these spaces and the city is sending inspectors or your landlord is trying to evict you verbally or in writing, the best thing to do is to contact our counseling team.

Remember: You may have rights in a warehouse or other type space, depending on the circumstances. You could be under rent control and/or just cause protection. Especially if the building was built before 1979 and there is more than one area of the building that is being rented.


If you think you live in an illegal unit and there are repairs that need to be done, contact the Code Enforcement Outreach Program (CEOP) at our office. CEOP is a collaborative effort of the Department of Building Inspections and tenant and landlord community-based organizations that work together to resolve repair problems.

As part of CEOP, a Housing Rights Committee can collaborate with the SF Apartment Association to contact your landlord about their responsibility regarding repairs. We can also try and help you navigate the building inspections process.

To reach HRCSF’s CEOP program, simply contact our counseling team. You do not have to be under rent control to take part in this program. Persons in subsidized housing (Section 8 and public housing as well as HUD and nonprofit housing) can call for this service, too.